Philip James De Loutherbourg

The Battle of Camperdown


Philip James De Loutherbourg 1740–1812
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1524 × 2140 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1971


The subject of this large oil painting is the Battle of Camperdown, a major naval encounter which took place on 11 October 1797 between a British fleet under Admiral Adam Duncan and the Dutch fleet, who were then allied with the French. The battle was the most significant conflict between British and Dutch forces during the French Revolutionary Wars (1792–1802) and resulted in a resounding victory for Duncan. De Loutherbourg shows the decisive moment when the British flagship Venerable, to the left of centre, fires its last broadside at the Dutch flagship Vryhied. Other British ships such as Powerfully Ardent, Bedford and Director can also be identified, but such documentary detail was not de Loutherbourg’s primary concern. The prominence given to the shipwrecked sailors in the foreground offers a human perspective on the conflict.

The ability to conjure the pictorial drama of the scene owed much to de Loutherbourg’s wide-ranging professional experience. In 1771 he had moved to London from Paris, where he had enjoyed considerable success as a landscape painter and been elected the youngest ever member of the French Academy. Though his intention was to stay in England only long enough for a difficult family situation to resolve itself, he in fact remained in the country for the rest of his life. While continuing to paint and exhibit regularly at the Royal Academy, de Loutherbourg also entered the employment of the celebrated actor-manager David Garrick as a set and costume designer for his theatre on Drury Lane. De Loutherbourg’s highly imaginative stage effects, involving coloured lights, painted glass, transparencies and smoke, attracted widespread admiration. In 1781, at his home in Soho, he launched his famous Eidophusikon; a miniature mechanical theatre in which spectacular city views, storms at sea and scenes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost were re-created. The cross-over between these two parallel strands of de Loutherbourg’s career is evident in the heightened effects of his painting from the 1780s onwards; his mountainscapes and battle scenes demonstrating a flair for theatrical spectacle translated into dynamic compositions and sensational lighting effects.

Following the great critical and commercial success of two previous naval battle scenes by de Loutherbourg – The Grand Attack on Valenciennes (Naval and Military Club, London) and The Glorious First of June (National Maritime Museum, London) this painting was commissioned as one of a pair from the artist by the enterprising engraver James Fittler (1758–1835). Fittler hung The Battle of Camperdown alongside its partner, The Battle of the Nile 1800 (Tate T01452), in an exhibition room he had hired for the purpose in London. He simultaneously advertised ‘superb and elegant’ prints after the painting to which visitors could subscribe. Although the take-up on subscriptions was disappointing, The Battle of Camperdown was sold and subsequently passed through several eminent private collections, including that of George Spencer-Churchill, 5th Duke of Marlborough, and the Junior Carlton Club on Pall Mall, where it hung for many years before its acquisition by Tate in 1971.

Further reading
Martin Myrone (ed.), Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination, London 2006.
Christopher Baugh, ‘Philippe de Loutherbourg: Technology-Driven Entertainment and Spectacle in the Late Eighteenth Century’, Huntington Library Quarterly, vol.70, no.2, June 2007, pp.251–68.
Olivier Lefeuvre, Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg: 1740–1812, Paris 2012.

Ruth Kenny
October 2013

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Display caption

De Loutherbourg was celebrated for his dramatic depictions of maritime disasters and sea battles. The subject here is the decisive moment in the battle of Camperdown, off the Dutch coast, in 1797. A British fleet defeated the Dutch, who were then allied with the French. The flagship Venerable fires its last broadside at the Dutch Vrijheid (Freedom). De Loutherbourg, who was chief designer of scenery at the Drury Lane Theatre, was more concerned with dramatic effect than documentation.

Gallery label, February 2016

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Catalogue entry

Philip James de Loutherbourg 1740–1812

T01451 The Battle of Camperdown 1799

Inscribed ‘P.J.De-Loutherbourg. R.A.1799’ b.r.
Canvas, 60 x 84¼ (152.4 x 214).
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1971.
Coll: ...; the Junior Carlton Club, acquired in the latter part of the 19th century, sold Christie’s, 24 May 1968 (84, repr.), bt. Leggatt for a private collector who lent it to the National Maritime Museum 1968–71 and sold it through Leggatt’s to the Tate Gallery 1971.
Engr: in line by James Fittler, published April 1801.

The British fleet under Admiral Duncan engaged the Dutch under de Winter off the coast of Holland near Camperdown on 11 October 1797. After a long and closely fought battle de Winter surrendered. In de Loutherbourg’s picture Duncan’s flagship Venerable is to the left of centre and has just fired her last broadside at the Vryheid, aboard whom de Winter is seen striking his flag. The key to Fittler’s engraving of the painting identifies the British ships Powerfully Ardent, Bedford, Director, the Active cutter and the Dutch Hercule, but ship portraiture was nor de Loutherbourg’s primary concern. As the prospectus for the engraving explains, the artist’s ‘animating display’ was intended to express ‘the extent of the horror and devastation attendant upon a conflict disputed with such obstinate bravery, and so honourable in its termination to the British navy.’ Moreover,

‘Mr. Loutherbourg has availed himself of the privilege allowed to painters, as well as epic and dramatic poets, of assembling in one point of view such incidents as were not very distant from each other in regard to time. These incidents have been associated as fully as the limits of the distinct pictures [i.e. this work and its companion, T01452] would admit; and although many principal events, in which particular ships distinguished themselves, may not have been brought forward, yet the artist is satisfied that the officers of the navy will be indulgent for whatever it was not practicable to introduce; especially as it has been Mr. Loutherbourg’s plan to compose his pictures with an adherence to the principles of the art not usually consulted in marine painting.’

To a greater extent than a more traditional artist like Thomas Whitcombe, whose ‘Battle of Camperdown’ is also in the collection (N01659), de Loutherbourg is concerned with making a dramatic work of art which will involve the spectator in the melee of the battle and arouse his sympathy for the participants. His more dynamic conception of landscape and seascape was a valuable example for the young Turner.

A smaller version of T01451, measuring 29½ x 38 in. and dated 1801, is in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1970–1972, London 1972.

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